The Final Harvest

Developers are hungrily eyeing Dade's agricultural heartland, where farmers are a dwindling breed

Such advocacy, say his opponents, has earned him the reputation as a henchman for a few wealthy landowners who see a potential to reap huge profits by turning their fields into tract housing.

But neither Kirby nor the high-priced attorney was sufficiently persuasive. After about two and a half hours of debate, the council rejected the application by a vote of 6-0. The setback hasn't discouraged Nature's Way, which filed an appeal with the county commission; the company will need the votes of nine of the thirteen commissioners to overrule the denial.

The Nature's Way hearing was not the first time the Farm Bureau has asked for a zoning change that would enable farmers to sell their land. And recently the Farm Bureau board refused to support an agricultural retention plan that would examine various land-use issues and development options for South Dade.

The Farm Bureau's leadership justifies its actions by portraying property owners as a victimized minority fighting to survive in the face of a cabal of environmentalists and rapacious government officials.

"There is a state of crisis," asserts Kirby. "But it doesn't have to do with land acquisition." The problem, he says, lies in declining profits in agriculture, thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has forced Dade farmers to compete with Mexico's cheaper labor and less stringent regulations. And with the possibility of agricultural trade with Cuba on the horizon, the picture could darken considerably. If farmers can't make a decent living on the land, why shouldn't they have the right to decide what will become of it?

He is reminded of Charles Burr's plea before Council 14 last fall to save the Redland from encroaching suburbia: "Charlie Burr does very well -- and if he didn't, he would be the first to sell."

Government officials and activists alike agree that if Dade's agricultural land is to be saved, it must be saved soon. There are 19,000 acres of farmland still inside the Urban Development Boundary. With the 10,000 acres already set aside (some of it condemned, as Kirby is quick to point out, and, he believes, bought under value) for state water management and federal reserves, that could leave just 54,000 acres remaining for agriculture. Dade needs 50,000 acres to support an agricultural industry and its related businesses, according to estimates by the Redland Conservancy, an agricultural preservation activist group. Kirby agrees there is a critical mass number, but he says it has yet to be established. "The free-market system would tell you when you reach [it]," he says.

The alternative to farming looms in stark profile above the flat fields: Just north of the Redland, off Krome Avenue and Killian Drive, a swath of new subdivisions marches west, gobbling up acres of tomatoes that stand in its path. Rows of identical houses offer the American dream, and at affordable prices. Less than a mile behind them begin the strip malls and gas stations, arrayed together like so many camp followers. As Dade's population increases, the progression of development to the south and the west seems inevitable.

"Without a commitment from at least a majority of community stakeholders, the land necessary for agriculture will be paved over," says Samuel Poole, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District. "Agriculture will never compete with shopping centers and subdivisions."

Kirby and several Dade County Farm Bureau officials are explaining their philosophy as they sit around a table in the organization's warrenlike, colonial-style headquarters in Homestead. The American Farm Bureau Federation is a national trade organization based in Washington, D.C., although its member chapters maintain local autonomy. The organization holds a 501(c)(5) nonprofit status, a special designation for agriculture that allows it to lobby and donate to political campaigns. The Farm Bureau funds the majority of its activities through donations and fundraisers, according to Kirby, who is a salaried employee.

Some chapters, including Dade County's, provide an additional service: Farm Bureau insurance, for which there are several underwriting groups. Obtaining coverage, particularly for crops, is often difficult for Dade farmers, who can lose years of investment in a single hurricane or a severe freeze. The catch is that in order to get the insurance the applicant must pay $50 per year to become a member of the Farm Bureau.

But farmers are the minority members in this chapter, where insurance is open to all comers. Of the 4000-strong membership, a figure Kirby trumpets at public meetings, only 1200 are actually involved in agriculture; the rest are simply policyholders.

"We are a bona fide, representative, agricultural body," insists John Fredrick, co-owner of Atlantic FEC Fertilizer Company, a current board member and former president of the chapter. "This is the group that embodies and encompasses the broadest spectrum of agriculture interests."

Indeed, the 35-member board of the Dade County Farm Bureau includes representatives of the three types of farms in Dade County: row crops, tropical fruits, and nurseries. Board members from these different groups are elected every year from nominations made by the previous board and are generally drawn from the larger agricultural businesses. In addition, two of the seats currently belong to the area's most prominent bankers: the colorful Bill Losner of First National Bank of Homestead, and Robert Epling of the Community Bank of Homestead, who together hold mortgages and loans on many of the farms in South Dade. (According to news reports, Losner allegedly pulled a gun on a long-time zoning activist in 1988 in a case that ended with the banker paying an undisclosed settlement. He is also an elected member of Community Council 14. The Farm Bureau supported his campaign with the maximum $500 contribution.)

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